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Essex County

ESSEX COUNTY, county in New Jersey, U.S. Located in northern New Jersey, Essex County has an area of 127 sq. miles (330 sq. km.) and in 2005 was the second largest county in New Jersey by population. Essex County is part of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, which encompasses Essex, *Morris, Sussex, and northern *Union counties and serves a Jewish population of approximately 120,000.

Early History

The Jewish history of Essex County is rooted in the city of Newark. Records indicate that a small number of Sephardi Jews were among the earliest Jewish settlers in the Newark area, but, with few records and no synagogues to document their stay in the area, the growth of Newark's Jewish community is attributed to the arrival of German Jews in the 1840s. Conventional wisdom has it that the first recorded Jewish settler in Newark was Louis Trier in 1844. Trier had six children, among them Abraham, who in 1845 became the first Jewish child to be officially registered as born in Newark.

Prince Street and the Third Ward

Of the many memories associated with Jewish Newark, none engenders more enthusiasm than stories about life on Prince Street and the six blocks of Yiddish-speaking neighborhoods that bordered and surrounded Prince Street. This was Newark's Third Ward. The boundaries at the eastern end were High Street (now Martin Luther King Boulevard) from Clinton Avenue to Springfield Avenue. The western boundaries were Belmont Avenue (now Irving Turner Boulevard) from Clinton Avenue to South Orange Avenue. This is where Newark's Jews, some 50,000 of them by 1911, lived and worked. First there were peddlers who came to the area, then came the pushcarts, followed by Jewish merchants who opened storefronts on Prince Street. Prince Street was described as "Baghdad on the Passaic" by one of the founders of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, Saul Schwarz. Residents kept to the neighborhood. For entertainment, old and young attended Yiddish plays and operettas at Elving's Metropolitan Theater (1922–44). This first generation of Jewish immigrants also maintained memberships in mutual benefit and burial societies. For German Jews there was the KUV, Kranken Untersteutzung Verein, or Chronic Benefits Society, and for East European Jews, these societies, or "landsmanschaften," helped ease their adjustment to life in America. Two of the most popular occupations at this time were that of the saloonkeeper and the pharmacist. For sons of Jewish immigrants, boxing was a way to make a living. The starting place for Newark's Jewish fighters was the High Street YMHA. Noted amateurs were Newark's only Jewish mayor, Meyer Ellenstein, and Newark's bagel king Sonny Amster. Professional boxing sites were Laurel Garden or the Newark Veledrome. Newark's Jewish boxers were also recruited into an organization designed to counter pro-Nazi activities in the Newark area in 1933 and were called "The Minutemen."


By 1855, the number of Jewish families living in Newark was estimated at 200. The steady increase of Jewish families had already manifested itself when, in 1848, as many as 60 families joined the newly incorporated "Jewish Religious Congregation B'nai Jeshurun." This was Newark's first synagogue and New Jersey's oldest Reform congregation. Isaac Schwarz was its first rabbi. Newark's second oldest congregation, Temple B'nai Abraham, founded in 1855, was followed by Congregation Oheb Shalom in 1860. Oheb Shalom was one of the seven charter members of the *United Synagogue of America. These synagogues continue to host large congregations but are now located in the Essex County towns of Short Hills, Livingston, and South Orange respectively. In its heyday, however, Newark was home to as many as 43 synagogues. After numerous mergers and relocations, Essex County is currently home to 27 synagogues. There is one neighborhood synagogue with member services still located in downtown Newark, Ahavas Sholom, and one continuously operating synagogue, Mount Sinai Congregation, located at the Ivy Hill Apartments in suburban Newark. Of the many distinguished rabbis that served the greater Newark community, one in particular earned national and international recognition. Rabbi Dr. Joachim *Prinz, who fled Nazi Germany, became chief rabbi of Temple B'nai Abraham in 1939. Prinz used his pulpit to rally support for America's civil rights movement and counted civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as one of his close friends.

Business, Industry, and Philanthropy

Louis *Bamberger and Felix Fuld established what became, by 1920, the nation's fourth largest department store, L. Bamberger and Company. Bamberger and Fuld were Essex County's, and possibly New Jersey's, greatest philanthropists of all time. The two men were the largest donors for Newark's Beth Israel Hospital, the YM-YWHA building on High Street, the building that houses the world-renowned Newark Museum, and the lasting legacy of an annual cherry blossom festival (more cherry trees than Washington, D.C.) at Branch Brook Park courtesy of Carrie Bamberger Fuld. Bamberger and Fuld donated some $18 million dollars to found the world famous Institute for Advanced Study located in Princeton, New Jersey, which offered world renowned scientist, Albert *Einstein, a position as the first head of its mathematics department. Einstein's connection to Newark's Jewish community is well documented.

Newark's Jews owned manufacturing businesses in industries such as leather, trunk, and harness manufacturing as well as jewelry manufacturing. Prominent industries such as Louis Aronson's Ronson Lighter Company and A. Hollander Sons, which grew into the largest fur dressing and dyeing operation in the world, earned Newark the name "workshop of the nation." New Jersey's premier supermarkets, Kings, ShopRite, Pathmark, and Wakefern Food Corporation were founded by members of the MetroWest community following World War II. Jewish businessmen with family roots in Newark continue to play a role in the renaissance of Newark. Jewish landmarks from the past are finding new uses.

Charitable Institutions

The collective accomplishments of Newark's Jewry include the founding and funding of Newark's Jewish hospital, Beth Israel Hospital (1901), which merged into St. Barnabas Healthcare System in 1996, and whose profits from the sale of the hospital are managed by the Jewish community as the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, and New Jersey's first Jewish home for the aged, Daughters of Israel Geriatric Center, founded in 1906, and located in West Orange. The first YM-YWHA was located on Newark's High Street in 1924. MetroWest now maintains two "Y" buildings, one in West Orange and the other at its Whippany Campus in Morris County. The community's social service agencies are distributed around the greater MetroWest area.

Educational Institutions

A congregational Hebrew school was established at B'nai Jeshurun in 1863; the Plaut Free Memorial Hebrew School followed in 1888. A talmud torah was established in 1899 in a store on Newark's Broome Street. Michael Stavistsky spearheaded the movement to establish the JEA, or Jewish Education Association, in 1937. Not well known is the Bet Yeled Jewish Folk School organized in 1950. The first major day school, Yeshiva of Newark, merged with the talmud torah, and was renamed the Hebrew Academy of Essex County in 1943; it subsequently merged with the Hebrew Youth Institute, and was renamed the Hebrew Youth Academy in 1962. Currently, it is the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy located in Livingston. Two individuals, Professor Nathan Winter and Horace Bier, were responsible for most of the Solomon Schechter Day Schools founded in New Jersey.

The newspaper-of-record, the Jewish News, began publishing in 1947. This paper is now the New Jersey Jewish News, and has the distinction of being the nation's second largest Jewish newspaper.

Shift to the Suburbs

In 1948, Newark was home to as many as 65,000 Jewish residents with an additional 21,000 Jews living in its suburbs. In the decades after World War II, there was a large-scale movement to the suburbs to towns such as South Orange, West Orange, Livingston, and more recently, Millburn-Short Hills. Flight was intensified by the Newark riots of 1967 and paralleled similar movements by Jewish communities elsewhere into the suburbs. In the mid-1990s the Jewish population of Essex County, including Newark, numbered approximately 76,200. The Jewish population of Livingston was approximately 12,600, and the Jewish population of West Orange was approximately 16,900.

Mergers of Institutions and Agencies

In 1923, an agreement to merge 13 Jewish agencies resulted in Essex County's Conference of Jewish Charities. The Essex County Council of Jewish Agencies was formed in 1936. The Jewish Community Council of Essex County, established in 1944, went one step further and incorporated the community's welfare services, fundraising, and community relations programs within one central federation. The 1973 merger of towns in the greater Summit area with the Jewish Community Council of Essex County reflected the movement of Jews west to towns in Morris County. The last significant merger occurred in 1983 between the Jewish Community Federation of Metropolitan New Jersey (Essex County) and the Jewish Federation of Morris and Sussex to create the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest.

MetroWest in Footlights

Essex County's greatest contributions to Jewish life in America are in the broad field of entertainment. Theater owner Morris Schlesinger is credited with discovering singer/film star Al *Jolsonn; Dore *Schary, executive producer at MGM studios, produced as many as 350 movies and also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sunrise at Campobello; Essex County claims world-famous comedian Joseph Levitch, a.k.a. Jerry *Lewis; composer Jerome *Kern attended Barringer High School; Broadway producer Burton Shevelove produced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; choreographer Dean Collins gave us the steps to the West Coast Swing; there was children's poet Ilo Orleans; Beat Generation poet Allen *Ginsberg; and Newark's Jewish neighborhoods, mom and pop merchants, synagogues, rabbis, and institutions have been immortalized on the pages of American literature by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Weequahic High School graduate Philip *Roth, who depicts Newark time and again in his novels.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.